Welker: Toughness, smarts make up for size

984293.jpg

Welker: Toughness, smarts make up for size

FOXBORO -- Wes Welker looked like hell. He looked like a guy who, over the course of a five-month football season, caught 118 passes and took just as many hits.

After Thursday's practice he walked to a podium for his media-access period wearing flip flops and sporting a black eye that had already turned various shades of purple, yellow and red. He didn't know exactly how he earned that particular badge of courage, just that it was a result of one of the many shots he absorbed during last week's Divisional Round win over the Texans, 41-28.

As the Patriots prepare for the AFC Championship Game against the Ravens, there has been talk of toughness, usually in reference to the Ravens. Their veteran linebacker and emotional leader Ray Lewis returned from a torn triceps to play in this year's playoffs. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs returned from a torn achilles this season less than a year after shredding it. As a team, the Ravens like to hit hard. Born out of the mold of the traditionally-rugged AFC North, they're bonafide tough.

But an argument could be made that the toughest individual player on the field Sunday will be New England's 5-foot-9, 190-pound slot receiver. Welker has made a career over the middle of the field, braving hits from linebackers and safeties. And since punt returner Julian Edelman was lost for the season to injury, Welker has taken that job and put himself in position to take a few more crunching blows every game.

The baffling question is not why, but how? How has Welker, at his size, remained so consistent -- earlier this year he became the first ever receiver to notch 100 receptions in five straight seasons -- in a role that is so punishing?

"I think the two key things are being tough and being smart," Welker said. "Being able to take those hits and do all those things, and at the same time, being smart and understanding what the defense is doing and being able to attack it in a certain way where you can maybe make those windows just a little bit bigger where you're not taking those hits and things like that. I would attribute being tough and being smart, and really understanding the game."

Welker is a master of deflecting head-on shots. As a punt returner, it's a skill that stands out. Rarely does he take a heavy hit as he starts up field with no momentum while opponents come barreling down on him at full speed. A subtle dip of his shoulder. A twist of just a few degrees. Sometimes that's all it takes. That's the difference between staying on the field for that subsequent offensive series and some other, more painful result.

His team is concerned about him. They need him, especially now with tight end Rob Gronkowski -- the team's much larger middle-of-the-field target -- sidelined for the remainder of the playoffs with a broken arm.

Welker said on Thursday that he's spoken with coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady about how to avoid big hits.

"It's a long season," Welker said. "Every little hit, it adds up. There are times where you gotta know when the ride's over and get down and live to see another day and things like that. So we've discussed it before, but at the same time, when you need a first down or whatever, you gotta do what you gotta do."

That's the rub. Welker has become one of the NFL's best receivers because of his toughness. Coming out of high school, he was too small for Division 1 football. He went on to star at the Division 1 program at Texas Tech. Then he was too small for the NFL. Now he's the most reliable and productive option in one of the most prolific offenses of all time.

He's hard-wired to try. Knowing when the ride is over isn't his strong suit. But he knows enough to pick his spots.

"You learn," he said with a smile.

But even when Welker chooses wrong, he pops back up. Playing tough is who he is. He knows it's not achieved by talking or trying to intimidate, which the Ravens have been known to do at times here at Gillette Stadium. It's something else.

"There's guys that talk trash," Welker said. "There's guys that try to hit you and do all these different things, but I feel like I've been around long enough to know a tough guy when I see one."

Rodriguez continues strong stretch as Red Sox blank Seattle, 3-0

Rodriguez continues strong stretch as Red Sox blank Seattle, 3-0

BOSTON -- The Red Sox scored runs in bunches in tallying four consecutive victories. They leaned on pitching and defense to earn their latest.

Eduardo Rodriguez pitched six scoreless innings and the Red Sox took advantage of a sloppy performance by the Seattle Mariners for their season-high fifth straight win, 3-0 on Friday night.

It was the third win in a row for Rodriguez (4-1), who gave up just five hits and struck out four while throwing a season-high 112 pitches. Craig Kimbrel earned his 13th save.

"I just go out there and pitch," Rodriguez said. "I'm never really thinking about numbers. I just go out there and throw my pitches and do the best I can do."

That effort is producing one of the best stretches of his three-year career.

Rodriguez has pitched at least six innings in his last seven starts, going 4-0 in that span. He hasn't allowed a run in 10 innings and only 11 runs in his last 49 1/3 innings. His ERA is just 2.01 over that same period.

"He was amazing," Jackie Bradley Jr. said. "Put zeroes on the board all night long. And he made the big pitch when he needed to."

The only run support Rodriguez needed came in the second inning, when Hanley Ramirez scored on Josh Rutledge's RBI groundout. Boston added two more runs in the sixth, scoring on a wild pitch and passed ball.

Manager John Farrell said his 24-year-old pitcher is in a "very good place" right now.

"He was powerful tonight," he said. "It's just a matter of his abilities coming together. This has always been an extremely talented young guy. We've talked about his maturity, we've talked about his progression. It's been on display here for a good number of starts consecutively."

Yovani Gallardo (2-5) took the loss. He lasted 5 1/3 innings, gave up seven hits and was responsible for all three of Boston's runs.

"The whole night obviously wasn't consistent," he said.

Seattle has won just one of its last seven.

Meanwhile, Boston gave Rodriguez got lots of help defensively. Bradley had a pair of nice plays, getting an outfield assist in the second and running down another ball on the warning track in the sixth.

In addition to the pitching miscues, the Mariners had all kinds of issues in the wet conditions, committing two fielding errors.

The Red Sox left 11 runners on base, leaving the door open for the Mariners to get back in the game. But Seattle couldn't capitalize, going 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position. The Mariners also left seven runners stranded.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Mariners: LHP James Paxton (strained left forearm) was slated to make a rehab start Friday night in Double-A Arkansas. He has been on the 10-day disabled list since May 5. He could be activated for a start at the end of the month against Colorado.

Red Sox: Infielder Marco Hernandez will be out the remainder of the season after undergoing stabilization surgery on his left shoulder on Friday. Hernandez was placed on the disabled list May 4 with a left shoulder misalignment. The 24-year-old hit .276 with two RBIs in 21 games. ... A night after he left the game with left knee pain, 2B Dustin Pedroia was held out Friday for what Farrell said was "precautionary reasons" because of the wet playing surface.

MISSING: OFFENSE

Mariners manager Scott Servais said they are doing everything they can to find production from an offense that has gone missing.

"Offensively, we struggled to put innings together. That's kind of been the story here for the last week or so, we just haven't gotten the line moving at all, for whatever reason," he said. "Guys are frustrated by it, we all are. We know we're better than that, offensively. It's not happening right now."

Seattle was held scoreless for the fourth time this season.

UP NEXT

Mariners: RHP Rob Whalen (0-2, 4.09 ERA in Triple-A Tacoma) will be making his first major league start since last season with Atlanta. He will be 12th different starting pitcher the Mariners have used this season.

Red Sox: LHP Brian Johnson (1-0, 7.20 ERA) will be making his second major league start this year and third of his career.